How to be interesting at a dinner party

Jessica Hagy

I recently found myself invited to a dinner party. Between work and the kids, it had been one of those really long weeks. By Friday night at 7 p.m., I had nothing left. I arrived at the party exhausted with a bad case of dinner-party performance anxiety. I managed to muddle through, but that got me thinking about what it really takes to be interesting in a situation like that -- I can't be the only one.

I went straight to an expert, the woman who literally wrote the book on how to be interesting: Jessica Hagy, author of How to be Interesting. Her work appears on Indexed and Forbes.

Jessica Hagy
Jessica Hagy (Jason Merryman)

"I think the dinner party is a great stage to showcase interesting in a lot of different ways," Hagy says. "You can show up basically as an observer of other interesting people and let that be a learning experience for you, or you can show up and be a little bit more of the life of the party. But the main thing is to show up.

"The first step is to go exploring -- if you're out of your comfort zone, if you're wandering into somebody's house for the first time -- that's one step in and of itself."

Hagy doesn't mean rummaging through your host’s medicine cabinet, closet or drawers. She means be adventurous, try different foods, engage strangers in conversation.

"Be prepared to have awkward conversations with strangers, because good conversation is a little bit like coaxing a feral cat out of a drain pipe," she says. "You need bait, you need something to talk about, you need to be perceived as non-threatening, and you need to prepare yourself to be hissed or clawed at.

"People love to talk about themselves. If you can start the conversation with a question other than "How do you know the host?" and "What do you do for a living?", you'll be able to get a lot more interesting conversation out of whomever it is you're talking to.

Here's an example:

"Usually it's, 'How did you get here?'" Hagy says. "That brings in, 'I have this old, broken-down vehicle' or 'I rode the bus with these crazy people who were doing witchcraft in the back.' It just opens up conversation."

There are extroverts who can keep an entire room rapt with their amazing stories or joke-telling abilities, and then there are the introverts.

"Listening is a key way to not only take interesting information that you can share later, but to make other people feel interesting themselves," Hagy says. "To coax people out of that shyness, just keep asking them questions."

So what about that person who has had too much to drink or won't stop talking?

"If you can't take their wine away, you should definitely try to take away their soapbox," Hagy says. "If you're the host, you can ask them to help you in the kitchen with something and just remove them from the situation. Or turn the conversation into a topic where they have no expertise and hope they won't be able to weasel in and take that over so quickly.

"The domineering people are obstacles to good conversation with everyone. Once everyone realizes who that character is -- for lack of a better term, the bore at the party -- everyone becomes in cahoots with derailing him."

And what about that other dinner-party killer: awkward silence?

"If you're faced with an awkward silence at a dinner party, the only thing that always gets everyone murmuring and talking again is to give the host a compliment," Hagy says. "He or she is the person who is feeling the weight of that awkwardness the most. Just quickly turn around and say, 'This souffle is magnificent and you have to tell me all about it.'"

So being interesting at a dinner party isn't that hard. It really boils down to just a few simple steps.

"I'd say there are three things you should always have in your pocket when you show up at a dinner party," Hagy says. "Be ready to be a good listener, bring a gift for the hostess or the host, and offer to clean up at the end of it. Nothing says you're really invested and paying attention like the willingness to help."

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